Like many of her peers, she picked up the baton dropped by the elusive Jai Paul (even working with his brother, AK Paul), and did the most sophisticated job of anyone when it came to turning his trademark scrunched funk into classy pop: layering it beneath her impossibly sweet coos on 2014 EP So Good and writing potential anthems in devotional tracks such as Adore You on her 2016 debut album, For All We Know.
The question regarding Nao’s second album is whether she makes a push for the chart success that is surely within reach, or digs deeper into her auteurism groove. And on Saturn, although her sugary vocals have remained intact, her artistic and personal growth is evident.
Based on the astrological theory of the “Saturn return” — the paradigm shift said to occur every 29 years in a person’s life — the record operates on a huge, kaleidoscopic scale. It spans ecstasy to despair, with cosmic bops (Gabriel) sitting alongside intimate confessionals (Saturn featuring Kwabs). Its moments of experimentation pay off: on Orbit, she pushes her vocals into new realms through distortion and impressive gospel-style runs.
The single Make It Out Alive featuring SiR is a vulnerable revelation for a singer who prefers to guard her privacy, detailing the breakdown of a long-term relationship as a “house that burnt down to the [expletive] ground”. Drive & Disconnect is hooked around a refreshing Afrobeats vibe — increasingly the sound of UK pop — and showcases Nao’s ability to adapt pop trends.
It’s hard to distinguish any obvious commercial hits. Saturn falls somewhere between the dance hits of producer DJs with big-name features, and earnest, heart-tugging balladry.
Once at the epicentre of a promising synthpop scene, Nao’s sound is now more of an acquired taste, made to serve a loyal and steadily growing fan base open to her sense of adventure. With the rise of R&B classicists in the form of Jorja Smith, Ella Mai and Mahalia, Nao presents a compelling alternative to the mainstream.